A love letter to the worst dog they ever met

Could anyone really love a dog this difficult? One brave family found a way

When it comes to dog memoirs, I'm hard to impress. For one thing, I've read too many of them, and for another, I've logged plenty of hours with a highly memorable dog of my own.

So I must admit that I didn't find myself all that amazed by most of the "craziest-dog-of-all-time" episodes that John Grogan relates in Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog.

Marley learned to escape from a supposedly secure crate? (Been there.) Liked to shift the car into neutral while it was in motion? (Done that.) Inflicted untold amounts of damage on the home during canine panic attacks? (Please, let us tell you our stories.)

But not being impressed was not the same thing as not being moved. That I was.

Grogan tells the tale of Marley, the loopy, uncontrollable, utterly daft Labrador retriever puppy that he and his wife brought home when they were a young couple. Despite the trials and tribulations the rambunctious - and sometimes obnoxious - fellow brought with him, Marley remained with the Grogans for the rest of his years, through the birth of three children; several moves and career changes; and all the joys and sorrows attendant upon living, loving, and raising a family.

What Grogan beautifully conveys in this book is the way a dog works himself into the texture of our lives, to the point that - for better or for worse - we can no longer imagine the day dawning without him.

If you are already a dog person, you will smile (and weep) in sympathy as you read. If you are not, you may marvel that anyone puts up with stuff like this, but perhaps you too will be awed by the final pages in which - Marley now absent - Grogan slips the deceased dog's choke collar into his top dresser drawer so that he can touch it each morning, hoping just for a moment to feel Marley with him again.

Grogan, who is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, has a fluid, readable style that easily and humorously takes the reader through the memories of the saintly dogs he and his wife grew up with, the reasonable decision they made to acquire one of their own, and then the shock they experienced when they finally grasped that the playful puppy they had picked from the litter was becoming a 97-lb lummox who would never really be manageable.

Marley's expulsion from obedience school was one warning sign; the six-page memo they wrote before leaving him with a sitter was another. The discovery that he freaked out during thunder- storms - using powerful paws and jaws to destroy whatever lay in his path during one of these frenzies - might have caused a lesser family to bail.

But not the Grogans. Apart from one tense period when Grogan's wife Jenny - struggling with postpartum depression - announced that she wanted him gone, they simply found ways to cope.

Of course Grogan also allows us to see Marley in his heroic moments. When Jenny miscarried, the normally frenetic young dog gently put his head in her lap and stood motionless, allowing her to literally weep on his strong shoulders. When a neighbor girl was attacked, the happy-go-lucky creature suddenly turned into a fierce sentinel.

But then there were the other times - the time Marley dragged a dinner table into the street, the time he caused all the other occupants of a dog-friendly beach to flee, the time he ate a pregnancy home-test kit strip. These make for a rollicking if rather predictable narrative - definitely fodder for a Disney film.

But as the story draws to a close, I defy any reader - friend or foe of dogs - to remain dry-eyed as Grogan tells how he and his family watched an aging Marley falter and realized that this irreplaceable friend would soon be taking his exit.

When Marley finally did go, Grogan - after a few weeks during which he felt somewhat embarrassed by the intensity of his grief - penned a tribute to him in his column. "No one ever called him a great dog - or even a good dog," he wrote. "He was as wild as a banshee and as strong as a bull. He crashed joyously through life with a gusto most associate with natural disasters."

Normally, Grogan tells us, a successful column evokes a few dozen responses. The Marley column brought in nearly 800. "Dogs are one of the wonders of life," wrote one sympathetic reader.

This story helps us to understand why.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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